Category Archives: Music

Lather, Rinse and Repeat

A conversation on Twitter today has brought up the topic of practice. For musicians practice can be a bane to ones life. We practice, prepare, exercise, drill, study, recite, rehearse and a multitude of other synonyms to do that which we love, and that is to perform music. By definition “Practice” is the act of rehearsing a behavior or engaging in an activity over and over to improve. Practice is not a method by which one improves as practice is a method of reinforcement of actions that generate an outcome. With that, Does practice make one improve or make one perfect as stated in the old adage that “Practice makes perfect”? I think not.

Most individuals go to the practice room, take our their instrument and begin what they believe is practice. This is not a good way to learn. One needs to have a plan, a guide, or some sort of organized structure to get through and accomplish the many tasks a musician needs to accomplish in a single, or multiple practice session.

Practicing is much like studying. So often individuals are not taught how to study in school, just as most young musicians are not taught how to practice. It is so much more than opening a book, reading, or putting horn to lips and blowing. There are some simple steps one can take to become better at the art of practicing. Yes, I said art, as practicing is a learned skill and an art in itself.

Below is a list of a few items one can do to aid in become better at the art of practice:

  • Schedule your practice time and meet your schedule.
  • Log your practice.
  • Take notes during your practice time and during lessons.
  • Review your notes after a practice session and after lessons.
  • List goals for the week, month, year, and your long-term goals such as auditions, etc.
  • Review your goals and see if you are meeting your expectations.
  • Adjust your goals periodically.
  • Warm up – this is not practice time and never let a warmup become practice.
  • Stay focused on your schedule.
  • Remember the practice room is for practice and to learn.

Below is a simple sample practice routine and should vary depending on one’s ability. This is not the end all and many will have other thoughts:

  • Warm up – This is a warmup and not time to practice. Breathing exercises and time to get the lips going with easy long tones in the middle and lower register.
  • Flexibility exercises – Scales in thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, etc., as well as wide slurs.
  • Scales and arpeggios – These are key to flexibility and learning how to play music.
  • Lip Trills.
  • Work the extremes of the horn range.
  • Now time to settle in on etudes, excerpts, solos, etc.

The above items are just simple thoughts, but if put into place in ones daily life improvement can be great. It is YOU that does the work and not the equipment. Fancy lead pipes, mouthpieces, and more are not what makes a great player as a great player is a player that is disciplined and works hard to learn, and to practice. Setting a schedule, meeting that schedule, making notes, reviewing those notes are so important to being successful in any career. You setup your schedule based upon class schedule, ensembles and other events out of your control and you need to meet the times you setup. Do not be over zealous, but set reasonable times for success. Remember that you set your times and set them for you to be successful in all that you do.

One needs to remember that the practice room is for practicing. Do not sit and play the things that you know so that others can hear you play well. Practice time is the time to practice, learn, improve, and most importantly to make mistakes. Learn from the mistakes but do not learn the mistakes. Practice will never make one perfect if one continually practices the mistakes. Of course, mistakes happen in performance and one cannot stop, but in the practice room it is time to assess and review why you made the mistake. Ask yourself questions. Be bold, be blunt about your playing. Assess, evaluate, find the solution, test the solution, re-evaluate, and test another solution if the first did not work. Take your time … Lather, rinse and repeat.

Yes, those words taken from the directions found on bottles of shampoo are important. Lather, rinse and repeat or play, review and evaluate, and repeat this cycle. It is a cycle or circle that never ends. Play through a simple etude then review and evaluate your performance. If you made a mistake think why you made the mistake. Find a correction, make a change, and use your mind to come up with a solution. Then you start over with the solution in place. The solution could be a simple fingering change, or change to your airstream, where you breath, what you are thinking while playing, and so many other options. Lather, rinse and repeat.

From my past, my mentor made me play through excerpts a minimum of ten times without any mistakes. If a mistake occurred I would have to start over at the first play through. So, playing the opening to Till Eulenspiegal’s Merry Pranks I would play through one time, then two, then three and if I made a mistake it was back to playing it the first time. Never continue practicing when a mistake is made, as one will only learn the mistake. Then that mistake becomes learned and when it comes time to perform it is likely that mistake will happen in performance. Be bold, use your mind, learn, practice in the practice room, perform and perform well because you learned to practice perfectly. Lather, rinse and repeat … It is not drudgery, but fun to learn, and fun to perform well. Lather, rinse and repeat.

Please feel free to ask me questions. I am always so happy to try and help in any way that I can. These thoughts are mine are will be different for each individual. Fine tuning to find what works best for you is an important aspect of learning. Just because one person can play a high c by puffing their cheeks, a squeezing their eyes closed does not mean it will work for you. Happy day to all. Lather, rinse and repeat.

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Crossing the Line. Hornist Behind Bars.

Before continuing one moment reading this blog post I would like for you to read David H. Thomas’ post at The Buzzing Reed. David, who I met online via Twitter, is Principal Clarinetist of the Columbus Symphony in Ohio. You will enjoy his thoughts and writing. My post will have more meaning after reading his post My Practice, My Life. Breathing Clarinet Air.

Michael holding horn in front of his face

Behind the bars looking for freedom

Thank you for coming back. I do hope you enjoyed David’s posts, as I know I did. Please check out his other blog posts, videos, and audio files as his thoughts and openness on playing and the “behind the scenes” world of practice are rare. Musicians do not often share their thoughts on practice and preparation. This world is somewhat intimate as we bare all working on the music for performances.

David has found something that I feel is quite elusive for many musicians. What he has found is something I gave up on some 10 years ago. This elusive item is not something a musician needs to perform, but I feel it is something we need as a person, as a musician, and as a being in this world. I know what is running through your mind, “What is so elusive for musicians and is it really important”. Yes!! It is elusive and important not only for musicians, but for all of us.

David wrote two thoughts that struck me. Let me address the first one where David states:

I began to sheepishly admit to myself: as much as I enjoy performing, I actually enjoy practicing and playing music for myself even more! Who needs an audience! I find myself by losing myself practicing a deeply challenging Jeanjean etude, or a musically rich Bach unaccompanied cello suite. Performing almost ruins the spontaneous beauty of it all, with the accompanying high standards one must meet to be approved; and with the perfectionist expectations most listeners have nowadays from hearing so many artificially perfected recordings

Musicians spend countless hours practicing and preparing for performances. The expectations are extremely high in the professional music world. Perfection. No missed notes, beautiful phrases, gorgeous interactions as musicians exchange musical thoughts. Perfection. The expectations are so high and we musicians become so entwined with doing what we do. We perform because it is what we do. Just like you get up each morning, grab a quick shower and something to eat while driving to work, and then work. You do what you do. I, too, fell into this so many years ago and gave up trying to cross that line from doing to being.

The other thought of David’s, which I have eluded to above is beautifully stated:

I had performed because it was what I was supposed to do. I am a clarinetist after all. It’s what I do. Please don’t misunderstand. I have never hated performing, only misunderstood the larger picture of why I do what I do.

The above statement hit me like a hammer. We musicians do what we do and that is perform, but there is so much more and I see how this applies to my past, present, and future musical world. Eyes wide open I now see. I also feel you are wondering what this is all about. Is this not some reiteration of what David so eloquently wrote?

This applies to my own world with this brief bit of my past. In December of 1998 I awakened one morning and did not wish to go to rehearsal. After 10 years with the Air Force Band program I wanted to stay in bed, sleep, and not do anything. Being in the Air Force Bands is quite prestigious and I did not want to go rehearse on the instrument that I had spent my life studying. After 10 years of traveling the world and being honored to perform for so many leaders of our world, and most importantly, performing for the people of the world. What an honor.

I was tired. I just wanted to stay home as I was the hornist behind bars unable to cross that line. Unable to cross that line into being all that is. Music and the musician world is so much more than practicing perfection. We have lost so much in reaching for this goal. I lost. I gave up on the climb to that mountain top that David mentions by letting the stress of perfectionist practice and performance, hundreds of performances each year, and the hours of travel grab hold and throw me down the mountainside.

I had given up on climbing the mountain and placed my horn in its case. I left the mountain growing smaller, and smaller in my rearview mirror. So much has happened in the years since that day. After reading David’s thoughts I am now looking for that mountain that I left so many years ago. Yes, I have played since that time as a professional but still with the thought of it being what I do. Each year I would accept fewer students and performances. Now, I have turned around. Want to face that climb and I am looking for that mountain. Ready to fight and cross that line. Being a musician and being a person in this wonderful world is so much more than doing what we do. We must live every moment. Remove the perfectionist thoughts and enjoy.

David stated:

Follow me if you like. See you at the top.

I am looking for my mountain from so long ago. With arms wide open to embrace that which I let toss me aside. Ready to enjoy all that is. I hope that you too will open your mind. Do not do what you are suppose to do, but love what you do. I am going to breath horn air, and I hope that you breath that which is yours, and enjoy all that is around you. Happy day to everyone.

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So You Want to be a Professional Hornist?

{Disclaimer: The below is very basic information and not intended to be the right thing for any individual person. We are all different and need different thoughts and techniques to reach the goals we seek. I believe that every music school should provide a class that is required of every music student. This class should be about the world of music, expectations, number of jobs for number of job seekers, and basically telling the student what they are getting themselves into}

Reading through tweets on Twitter today my mind began to wander. Not that what I was reading was not interesting, informative, humorous, or enjoyable, but some tweets tweaked my minds thought processes. Those individuals, fellow musicians, I follow on Twitter that have such wonderful minds. So open, fresh, thought-provoking, and they just seem to be good people. Today, especially, the posts from these individuals brought to mind some thoughts on the job as a principal horn and what takes to be a professional hornist.

Holding the principal horn position in an orchestra is quite thrilling, but also quite demanding mentally and physically. Every little thing that happens to you health-wise or in every day life can affect your performance. This is not just an issue for the principal hornist but any performing musician. Health is the utmost importance and I can say that I have played through colds, flu, strep throat, headaches, and myriad other maladies.

In speaking with other principal horn colleagues there are some that feel our necks are on the line each and every time we put horn up to play. Some expressed they felt this even when practicing at home. In the back of ones mind is the thought that one must not make mistakes. Mistakes happen, but as principal horn with the numerous solos, playing only in the upper tessitura, long periods of not playing (where are we? Rest 124?) and then being required to peg some stratospheric note out of nowhere, and so much more the expectations are quite high.

Life as a musician is quite grand. To perform music is such an honor. So many times I found myself listening to a colleague during a performance and becoming so enthralled with their expression that I felt time had stopped. It can be so glorious.

So, do you still want to be a professional hornist? Let me provide some thoughts. Most of these have been garnered from my teachers or colleagues. This is not the end-all method for anyone to become a professional hornist. Just some thoughts on the topic.

Typical Daily Regime for the serious student which was garnered from Kendall Betts, former principal horn of the Minnesota Orchestra during a master class:

  • 20-45 minutes F horn warm up such as Farkas.
  • 30-60 minutes etudes, some or all on F horn, such as Kopprasch, Kling, Gallay, Belloli, Reynolds, and others.
  • 20-45 minutes technical routines such as scales, arpeggios, broken arpeggios, chordal arpeggios, Clarke, Arban, Singer, or other technical materials.
  • 20-45 minutes long tones: pp<ff>pp; ff>pp<ff: holding pp, holding ff. (Long tones should not be performed higher than current capability. Slowly add a half-step every couple of weeks or so.)
  • 30-60 minutes repertoire: solos, excerpts, orchestral parts, etc.

After that master class I lived by the above regime. Even today I work on these areas each and every day.

As with any muscle-related activity one must be very cognizant to not overdue. If you are currently not practicing regularly do not attempt to use the above regime. One must also consider rehearsal and performance schedule. It is also very important to log your practice. As a student logging your practice regime will allow you to analyze your routine, when you are tired, when you feel fresh, and work to change your routine so that it meets your needs.

For young students work on the F horn is extremely important. Work on this side of the horn truly aids endurance, more natural slurs, better intonation, smoother piano not attacks, and more tonal color due to the sounding overtones. Truly, work on the F horn will provide one with some difficult practice After one has work through the first four or five Kopprasch Etudes the results will be clearly evident.

Kopprasch, Etudes, Op. 6, etude no. 29, mm. 1-18.

The above only provides some basic information on the time involved each day for a hornist. This will vary depending on the needs of the individual. There is so much more to being a professional musician on any instrument, and this is only the beginning. These are just thoughts from one hornist on a cold, snowy day who had a little bit of time in between playing scales and arpeggios, and going through a few Kopprasch etudes on F horn.

Let me leave you with Sir Simon Rattle’s thoughts on hornists:

You never eyeball a horn player. You just don’t. They’re stuntmen. You don’t eyeball stuntmen when they’re about to dice with death.

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The Musician Me – The Early Years

If you have read my bio page on this blog you will see that I have traveled the world as a musician, and performed with some incredible groups and people. If not, please do so before reading the rest of this entry.

I mentioned that this blog was going to be brutally honest. It is only fair that while being brutally honest I can do so with myself and my own life. So let me begin.

Like most I was involved in music in some form beginning in elementary school. When I was in elementary school music classes were quite different than what I see in the local public schools. My experience was based in the Orff and Kodály methods where students are taught to sing, play instruments, improvise, and dance from memory. Today, it appears that music classes are built around some performance such as national holidays, drug awareness, of graduation from elementary school. The days of playing rhythms on sticks, dancing (except for square dancing), clapping, and musical games are gone … it is now all about the show.

As elementary school progressed I was put into one of the classes where you were given an instrument and received weekly lessons. These weekly lessons were in a large group and probably received about five or ten minutes of individual instruction within the group. The instrument given to me was trumpet and I hated it. I did not like the sound and I had tremendous difficulties since I had to use my right hand fingers to move the valves. This difficulty is due to an extreme left-hand dominance I have and it felt very unnatural. Due to these minor issues practice was not part of my days. In fact, not one person taught me how to practice in these classes.

I had other things I enjoyed so much more. Reading was the most important to me. I could not get enough. While the books I was reading at that early age may have been Dr. Suess or the ever ubiquitous Hardy Boys, I just could not get enough. I would read in class, read while walking, read while eating, or any time I could hold a book in my hands. That was my time.

Even though I did not practice much, through some natural ability, I was able to play what was needed. Either that or the expectations were extremely low, and that is a high possibility. I ended up playing in the school orchestra, band, all-city orchestra, and all-city band. To this day I have no idea how that was possible but one should realize I was at the bottom of the section. Yes, there needs to be someone there to play that part but I was not there because I was good at that part. This continued into Jr. High as my musical life continued along this path for some time.

Jr. High is a strange time for young boys and girls. The body is changing as well as the mind. Music though stayed the same for me. It was boring and the band teacher was quite mean. As I think back to those days there never seemed to be any teaching. Just a man in front with a salt and pepper beard telling me how bad I was doing. I remember often getting called on to play by myself while the rest of the band listened. Oh, what a panic that was to hear, “Michael! Have you practiced that line? Play it for us.” Disaster every time my name was called. This was my life as a young musician and I am sure that many had the same experience, and it was not a good way to teach and instill confidence in a young person.

Time to stop for now as that is the end of the “Early Years”. Middle years will be coming up soon and those are much more interesting.

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